There seem to be at least a few crimes for which a lower-ranked officer can relieve a higher-ranked officer of command, most notably treason. While the lower-ranked officer would surely be highly scrutinized for taking such an action, it does seem a legal means of removing an officer of higher rank for criminal acts.

What are those circumstances/crimes/accusations under which an officer of the United States Armed Forces can relieve a higher-ranked officer, without the involvement of an officer of higher rank than the one being removed?


Only in the “most unusual and extraordinary circumstances” "conceivable"

Respect for the chain of command is central to the armed services. As a result, lower ranked officers generally cannot relieve a higher ranked officers of command. Instead, they must work through the chain of command, taking their complaints to their superior's superior. To do otherwise is usually considered mutiny. As far as I know, the only service that has made formal provisions for this is the Navy. This makes sense, given that ships at sea may be out of contact for extended periods.

The Navy regulations involving a subordinate can relieve a superior of command are found in § 1088. Relief of a Commanding Officer by a Subordinate of Chapter 10: Precedence, Authority and Command of the US Navy Regulations, issued by the Secretary of the Navy. Here is what that sections says:

In the “most unusual and extraordinary circumstances,” a commanding officer can be relieved only by the “next in succession to command.” The problem must be so “obvious and clear” that any “reasonable, prudent and experienced officer” could reach only a “single conclusion:” that leaving the officer in command would “seriously and irretrievably prejudice the public interests.”

Unless it is a “undoubtedly impractical,” the subordinate cannot act “without the approval of…higher authority...” The subordinate can act only after “much careful consideration” and after an “exhaustive investigation of all the circumstances…” The decision “must be based upon…substantial evidence,” and supported by “the official views of others in a position to form valid opinions…”

Any subordinate who relieves a superior will “bear the legitimate responsibility for…such action,” and “must be prepared to justify…” it.

  • 2
    Useful to read or watch "the Caine Mutiny" – DJohnM Aug 25 '20 at 21:16
  • another thing to read up on: medical regulations. Any doctor could relief a CO above his rank for medical reasons... – Trish Aug 25 '20 at 22:25
  • @Trish Do you have a citation? I'm not an expert on military law, but I don't see anything along those lines in either the Navy or the Army regs. In fact, the Navy is quite specific that the subordinate who relieves a commanding "must be the next in succession to command." I assume doctors are covered by the clause in 1088.3 that requires the decision to be "based upon...the official views of others in a position to form valid opinions, especially of a technical character." – Just a guy Aug 25 '20 at 23:05
  • @DJohnM Thanks! That's a great idea. I has to be more accurate than Star Trek, where commanding officers seemed to get relieved all the time. . – Just a guy Aug 26 '20 at 20:13

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